Cannes 2017: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here

On Film / The Daily — May 27, 2017

“Some filmmakers rust during periods of inactivity,” begins Guy Lodge in Variety. “Lynne Ramsay arches and tenses, lying in wait like an attack dog. And attack she does, though not in all the expected ways, in her astonishing fourth feature You Were Never Really Here, a stark, sinewy, slashed-to-the-bone hitman thriller far more concerned with the man than the hit. Working from a pulp-fiction source”—Jonathan Ames’s novella—“that another director might have fashioned into a Taken knockoff, Ramsay instead strips the classically botched job at the story’s core down to its barest, bloodiest necessities, lingering far more lavishly on the unspoken emotions rippling across leading man Joaquin Phoenix’s face, and the internal lacerations of trauma and abuse they cumulatively reveal.”

“A film of prismatic brilliance, in which single images convey the information of entire scenes, scenes play like short films, and quasi-subliminal edits create psychology as raw as an open wound (and there are plenty of those too), this 85-minute-long movie is the cinematic equivalent of finding the ocean in a drop of water,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “You Were Never Really Here cannot be described as ‘arthouse goes genre’ because from Ramsay’s vantage point, so stratospherically far above the majority of mere mortal filmmakers, those distinctions don’t exist. There is just filmmaking of the purest, most inventive and energizing kind.”

“It's a character study conducted primarily through an aesthetic vision,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door. “Heavy-for-hire Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles through his daily existence in an expressionistic haze of prescription drugs and disturbed memories, his mind flashing on images of childhood abuse and former lives as a military soldier and an F.B.I. agent. The only people Joe interacts with are his elderly, doddering mother (Judith Roberts) and an occupational middle-man, John McCleary (John Doman), who gets him his assignments from wealthy clients. Joe's latest job is to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the abducted daughter of New York Senator Votto (Alex Manette).”

“Cinematic relatives include Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle,” suggests Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies. This is “a noir thriller with few thrills, and a character study with limited character. Jonny Greenwood’s darkly devastating score accompanies Joe as he does the rounds of his world.”

“Another type of film might have attempted to widen and straighten the material into a conventional political conspiracy thriller about a low-level tough guy out of his depth, almost like something by John Grisham,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “This is very much not what Ramsay is doing with this film, which gives us only an iceberg-tip of the dirty dealings which compose its outer plot structure and is more interested in the abused and damaged state of a guy whose life and mind have been strip-mined by the violence he has seen and perpetrated, and by his muddled, Travis-like conviction that some kind of rescue for himself and other people could be possible.”

“Ramsay streamlines B-genre narrative tropes into an efficient and emotionally potent psychological portrait which recalls the woozy style of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) remixed with Paul Schrader’s 1979 Hardcore,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “Building on the nostalgic essence of the oft mimicked era of New American Cinema, this mostly dialogue free exercise is laced with themes of awakening and atonement in a fretful world filled with pain, heartache, and the ultimate reality of our expendability.”

“But then there will be visual tricks, like a shocker in the last five minutes, which just feel like a gimmick or, even worse, a misfiring joke,” finds Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “Indeed, the tone isn’t always easy to gauge throughout . . . Originally a still photographer, Ramsay has an eye for composition and near-abstraction that connects her more with art world figures like Bill Viola and Gerhard Richter than her British film contemporaries. Let’s hope the next film is worthy of that gift, and that we don’t have to wait too many years to see it.”

“Male directors are often criticized for having a taste for gratuitous violence, but Ramsay gets down with the big boys in proving that blowing heads off can be a genderless pursuit,” writes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “At one point, Joe is asked, ‘Where do you want to go,’ and he replies with a blank look, ‘I don’t know.’ Someone needs to ask Ramsey the same question.”

For IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “the movie is a compelling hodgepodge in search of an elusive bigger picture.”

You Were Never Really Here looks beautiful and beguiling thanks to the cinematography of Thomas Townend, which seems perfectly attuned to the moods and range of the film,” writes Screen’s Allan Hunter.

Updates, 5/28: “If the idea of this particular actor starring as someone paid to bring the pain sounds implausible,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club, “then you just haven’t seen the human wrecking ball he’s made himself into this time, complete with a shaggy gray beard that seems to enhance his fearsomeness and his outsider vulnerability all at once. You also haven’t seen his way with a hammer.” Further in, Dowd adds: “There is not a bad or uninteresting shot in this whole damn movie.”

“Ramsay is far too serious a filmmaker to dwell on Joe’s brutal modes of dispatch,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “She and her editor, Joe Bini, find an amazing array of methods to conjure and intimate violence without lingering upon it: the film is a sustained masterclass in ghoulishness-avoidance. What it has no intention of avoiding is moral consequence. It’s a thriller that makes itself sick, rather than giving us the thriller-satisfaction other directors, even good directors, might have wrung from the material.”

You Were Never Really Here stands alongside Claire Denis’s Bastards as one of the most ferocious indictments of systematic abuse of power and gender violence ever projected on a screen,” argues Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage.

“Cinematically, it’s undeniably gripping, a tightly wound contraption of nervous energy, grief, and gore,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture, “but it’s missing its director’s inimitable poetry.”

“Fitting the Hobbesian criteria of nasty, brutish and short—the film has been ruthlessly whittled down from an anticipated 95-minute running time to a terse, diamond-hard 85 minutes—Ramsay’s film brought the competition to an electrifying but polarizing close,” writes the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang.

“Given the fact that it was presented at Cannes without credits,” writes Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound, “and that the final film is expected to be at least a fine-tuned version, I’m hesitant to pronounce definitively on a film that’s sometimes perplexing, that in some ways seems both overstated and unresolved, but that, whichever way you cut it, is intensely cinematic, confrontational and intrepid.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 5/5) and Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa).

Update, 5/29: “The basic philosophy was always to make a film that was compact and intense,” Ramsay tells Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. “In general, everything was very quick; the production was very quick and the work was intense. I even thought that I might not have time to finish writing before shooting began, and so I wrote the script very quickly, but in the end things turned out fine. And every day of filming was full of surprises, to the point that I sometimes asked myself if I really knew what I was doing. But the film itself can answer that.”

Update, 5/30: “As in Andrew Dominik’s inferior Killing Them Softly from the Cannes competition five years ago,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “You Were Never Really There is everything we expect from a genre film but passed through a strange, shrouded mirror, a prototypical American film but seen from another angle. In an official competition selection that was most exhausting from its bloated sense of purpose and grandeur, Lynne Ramsay’s lean and discomfiting perspective is a welcome one, joining the Safdie brothers’ grubby, propulsive street-level vision of a New York crime film, Good Time, as a one-two punch of human-scaled reinventions of old standards.”

Updates, 5/31: This is “a sleek, vapid depiction of violence that postures as an indictment of contemporary American moral corruption,” finds Blake Williams, writing for Filmmaker. “It’s a movie for the sake of having a movie, and feels more informed by movies than it does of any firsthand encounters with/observations of the world.”

But for the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri, this was “the best film in the official competition . . . The film it reminded me most of is John Boorman’s Lee Marvin-starring genre deconstruction Point Blank, which also disposes of the particulars of its standard-issue crime story and opts to create meaning through style. But another film it closely resembles is Ramsay’s own We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton’s character’s overwhelming sense of maternal guilt cast her in a kind of surreal waking Hell, as she repeatedly replayed her recollections (some clearly unreliable) of a failed parenthood. In Ramsay’s cinema, emotion is memory, and it feeds the present and the future.”

You Were Never Really Here is one of the films Jordan Cronk, Nicolas Rapold, Jonathan Romney, and Amy Taubin discuss on the latest Film Comment Podcast (45’50”).

Update, 7/4: For Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold, “the propulsive plotting didn’t make up for my dashed expectations for Phoenix to create another indelible role, and the preponderance of fill-in-the-psyche flashbacks certainly didn’t help (nor did the god-awful ending dialogue).”

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